LONDON, Feb. 15 (JTA) Despite several high-profile solidarity missions, British tourism to Israel has fallen dramatically since Palestinian violence erupted in late September.
Thomson Travel, Britain’s largest package-tour operator, has canceled all trips to Israel through the end of the year, and El Al has reduced its number of weekly flights because of low interest.
Thomas Cook, one of the largest travel agents in Britain, told the JTA that travel to Israel in January was down by about two-thirds from the same period last year.
“In January 2000, we sent about 700 people to Israel. This year it was about 200,” Thomas Cook spokesman Nick O’Donnell said.
About one-third of British travelers to Israel are Jewish, according to the Israeli government tourist office here. Britain’s Orthodox and Reform communities have sent more than 100 people to Israel on separate solidarity missions in the past few months.
The “millennium effect” travel to Israel last year to commemorate the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus’s birth may have skewed last year’s figures, but the drop is still very pronounced, O’Donnell said.
People familiar with the region are less likely to be scared off than those with little knowledge of the Jewish state, he said.
“Tourists who have not been there before tend to look elsewhere now,” he said. “But people who have been before know that Eilat is 300 miles away from the center of the conflict.”
Gaining from the decline in Eilat’s popularity is the nearby Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik in the Sinai Desert, O’Donnell said.
Harry Helps, a press officer for Thomson Travel, said Thomson canceled its “Holy Land Tour” to Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth soon after the violence began. As it dragged on, the company was forced to cancel its Eilat package as well.
“We’re fully aware that Eilat wasn’t really affected by the violence,” Helps said. “But so many people canceled that we decided to cancel the whole program and assist them in finding another destination.”
Thomson normally runs Israel package tours from November to April. In a normal winter Thomson would send about 5,000 Britons to Israel, Helps estimated.
El Al also has been hit by declining travel to Israel.
The company canceled one of its two weekly flights from Manchester to Israel in early January, and does not plan to reinstate it until Passover, a company spokeswoman said.
The drop in tourism comes at a bad time for El Al, which just bought three new Boeing 777 planes for $400 million. It plans to use one on a London route.
El Al flights from London to Tel Aviv are continuing as usual, the El Al spokeswoman said.
A British Foreign Office warning against travel to Jerusalem is discouraging would-be tourists, the spokeswoman said.
The Foreign Office dropped the Jerusalem travel advisory on Feb. 8, but its recommendation to steer clear of Palestinian areas remains in effect.